Seven years in NYC’s public schools have taught me not to name a NYC child after precious (or semi-precious) stones, prophets, deities, holy sites, brand names, or descriptive adjectives. Seriously. Precious, Dominant, Messiah, Lord, and Diamond find themselves more often in conflict than Shaquasia, John, Jennifer, Tyrik, etc. There are naturally exceptions. A few of my Chanels and Diamonds have been sweethearts. They are, however, outliers.
The names themselves are not the problem. The problem isn’t even the fact that these kids are raised with a message that they are special and precious. Every child should hear these messages from their parents. The factor that interferes with a healthy connection to reality are the abilities to effectively identify when one is messing with them, and to deal with adversity in positive ways. In my experience, I have been messing with kids when I hold to deadlines, when I grade quizzes, when I apply rubrics we’ve used throughout the creation of projects, and when I encourage students to stop screaming expletives at the top of their lungs in class. I’ve received angry calls from parents demanding an apology for stopping Garnet from expressing her feelings to Narcissus (by applying every expletive in the book to him and his mother with a raised voice in the middle of class), because it’s not good for her to keep those feelings inside. Parents have complained that their little Jehovah didn’t have enough reminders to complete his project on time. (Daily reminders in class and semi-weekly emails home for a month with status updates were insufficient.) When shown the paper and rubric, and encouraged to read through to ensure that the grade was accurate, I’ve been told that Dionysus simply does not fail projects (regardless of his actual performance), and that he shouldn’t have to make corrections and resubmit it when I could just change the grade. I became quite accustomed to these arguments, and I wouldn’t get angry about them. Even though the administration wouldn’t back me up, my grading systems were objective and I could turn these situations around about 90% of the time. I simply helped parents see how the students could exemplify their names and take the high road to show the others how it’s done. I worry about the fate of the other 10%.
Two students in one of my schools fell in this 10% of students whose parents impeded (in my opinion) their social and emotional growth. We’ll call them Sapphire and Yahweh. Sapphire was tough. She and Topaz spent the entirety of 7th grade getting each other suspended by fighting, trashing each other on Facebook, and perpetuating all sorts of deviltry. They weren’t bad kids, but they had hard protective shells and always assumed teachers were getting them in trouble when they were trying to offer support. Before the girls even got to 8th grade, their respective mothers had waged a monumental girl-fight at parent-teacher conferences. Sapphire spent about 1/3 of the year in suspension for rather grave offenses (assaulting teachers who she thought disrespected her, pushing an administrator, etc.), fought with just about everyone, and occasionally brought her mother or cousins in for backup when entering into altercations. Yahweh had a different manner of behaving. He would pick on the volatile students until they broke and blew up at him, and then he’d claim they bullied him. Of course, we all saw him writing offensive notes about them and spreading them around the class. He would ignore reminders to take class notes because he was busy writing these offensive missives, and then he’d complain to his parents that teachers didn’t give him enough time to write his notes in class. While he was bright, he was absorbed in his avoidance of work. He’d often go outside of the classroom to blow his nose, and come back 20 minutes later only to need to sneeze again after five minutes drawing over and obscuring his neighbor’s class notes. Then he’d blame everyone but himself for lack of mastery with course content and off-task behavior. His parents went to the extreme of holding meetings with all of Yahweh’s teachers in one room, berating first one, then the next during their un-paid lunch-break, for not nurturing his inquisitive nature and voracious appetite for learning.
One day in class, Yahweh was throwing small balls of paper at Sapphire. He missed the first few times, and I went to him and whispered that he should rethink this course of action and perhaps he could try some of his sample sentences. I suggested this, because Sapphire would absolutely kick his toosh if provoked, and I wouldn’t be able to stop it. She had no boundaries. She would kick my toosh without a thought, too. Yahweh was playing with fire. He was very lucky that he’d missed.
Despite my suggestion, Yahweh continued his shenanigans and hit her in the head with the cap of his pen. Sapphire jumped to her feet (thankfully without moving toward him) and started shouting every expletive she could remember. I walked to Yahweh and whispered to him, “Please take a five minute walk for me. You’re not in trouble. I’ll talk to you when you come back.” Yahweh ignored me, and started screaming back at her. He called her the “b” word, which was unusual for him. He usually incited conflict in a more passive way. This set her off, and I had to deploy two of her classmates to help her stay on her side of the room and find her seat. She struggled against them and let loose with a tirade that would make a sailor blush.
I went back and knelt next to Yahweh. So that only he could hear me, I said, “You need to think about the choices you’re making now. Leave the room and wait for me in the hallway.” To this, he screamed, “I DON’T WANT TO MAKE RESPONSIBLE CHOICES!” Then he echoed every expletive she’d used and put together his own string in an impressive display of anger. He left out no person of import (including my mother). This demonstration was awe-inspiring. Then he realized he was so frustrated that he was now crying, and 24 faces were turned to him, eyes wide and mouths agape. He ran for the door, still screaming, and tried to slam it dramatically. Unfortunately for Yahweh, the door had hydraulic hinges, so it slowly closed with a “sssssss” sound while he tugged on it from the hallway. Finally, the door made a soft “click” and about 5 seconds of shocked silence elapsed before 23 8th graders erupted in laughter. I had to scold them.
After the class, I reported this incident to the administrators, his advisors, the guidance counselor, and anyone else with any sort of authority. The administrators forbade me from calling home. They were banking on him omitting this story over the dinner table, and they were thankfully right on this one. The parents never mentioned the event, and the next day both Sapphire and Yahweh returned to class for a fresh start. (Sapphire had just returned from suspension, and was treading on ice, and Yahweh had realized he couldn’t pull the bully card on Sapphire.) Before long, Sapphire returned to her pattern of trying to earn respect by force and Yahweh returned to picking on students until they acted out in front of teachers.
When these students were at home, they received different types of messages. Sapphire was constantly criticized for letting others mess with her. Her mother made it an imperative for her to fight for the respect she intended for Sapphire upon naming her. Mecca was cradled in a cocoon of indulgence. When things didn’t go his way, he knew he could count on them to act unquestioningly and aggressively on his behalf. The parents undoubtedly delivered these messages with loving intentions, and thought they were the best messages possible in the circumstances.
The parents, however, didn’t or couldn’t see the long-term effects of those messages in isolation. Every child needs to know how to stick up for himself or herself when necessary. If the message of rigidly fighting for respect isn’t tempered with some small degree of empathy and integrity, aggression will be the only tool for the child in difficult situations. Sapphire’s mother didn’t show her the value of gaining respect from her peers and teachers by performing well, collaborating, or using her impressive artistic talent to wow them. She only delivered the message that Sapphire had to stop people “dissing” her by humiliating them or beating them up.
Every child needs unconditional love, but also needs to know that sometimes failure pushes us to greater success. Yahweh’s parents gave a message of unconditional love and acceptance, and enforced an expectation for his teachers to praise him even when he made no effort to learn. Without having to work toward success and struggle for it in some small way, he may not learn how satisfying a job well done can be. I fear Yahweh’s parents may have robbed him of his ability to accept responsibility for his actions and climb out of adversity into legitimate success.
On the other end of the spectrum from these students and their parents, we have David, a student who failed his first project in the school year, and turned things around to have one of the highest averages in his class. At the end of the year, he came to me and explained how his first project grade spurred a stern conversation with his parents. He had assumed that Spanish didn’t matter because his parents were Spanish-speakers and he understood a few words. His parents reinforced the importance of putting effort into his work, took away his phone until he received a better grade in my class, and forced him to take me up on my offer for after-school practice. It turns out David had a language-based learning disability, and we had to be very creative about mechanisms that would help him learn and remember course content. By working with me, he was able to develop learning strategies, demonstrate his mastery in front of his peers, and he proudly announced on the last day of class that he started conversing with his parents. David’s parents showed him to stick up for himself in a positive way by forcing him to confront the material that challenged him. While they offered him consequences that he considered draconian, they showed their unconditional love by offering him a path to success.
After years in the public schools, I have learned that the parents of successful students maintain boundaries, give their children freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, and still offer them structure in which they can exert themselves in the world in a graduated, safe way. The names are an interesting correlation, but the important takeaway is the messaging at home and at school. We’ll do better by NYC kids when parents and teachers work together to help students succeed academically, emotionally, and socially in the long term.